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Gadadhar Singh

An Indian Adrift in the Qing Empire

Thirteen Months in China: A Subaltern Indian and the Colonial World (Annotated Translation of Thakur Gadadhar Singh’s Chin Me Terah Mas [1902]) edited by Anand A Yang, Kamal Sheel and Ranjana Sheel, Delhi: Oxford ₹ 950.

On 6 March 1901, a most unexpected rhythm began reverberating around the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. This imposing complex of buildings was the ritual heart of the Qing Dynasty, where the emperor performed ceremonies to maintain a harmonious balance between heaven and earth, ensuring a plentiful harvest for all his subjects. Now, with the capital under foreign occupation and the emperor in exile, in place of sombre state rituals a group of Rajput soldiers had gathered to celebrate the Holi festival. An improvised percussion section welcomed the new year with Chinese gongs, drums and empty oil cans, while others offered enthusiastic bursts of dancing and singing. Presently, an American tourist joined the celebrations, eagerly accepting cigarettes and cigars proffered by his new friends. He repaid these generous gifts with a lengthy lecture on the inherent problems of Indian culture. Quite where he had gleaned his insights is never explained. Nevertheless, he proceeded to pontificate about how Indians had a mentality of dependence and an obsession with caste that had prevented them from following their American counterparts to independence. Gadadhar Singh, the soldier who recorded this exchange for posterity, politely rebuffed his American friend, informing him that none of his countrymen would ever dream of seeking independence. All they wanted, he concluded, was “British rule to remain in Hindustan forever.”

This cosmopolitan scene is one of many fascinating vignettes captured in Gadadhar Singh’s memoir Thirteen Months in China (Chin Me Terah Mas). Originally self-published in 1902, this seminal work in modern Hindi travel literature has now been translated into English by Anand A Yang, Kamal Sheel and Ranjana Sheel. If readers are surprised by scenes of Hindu revelry at the heart of the Qing Empire, then this is testament to the extent to which Indians have been written out of the history of modern China. With the notable exception of the Sikh policemen who were used by the British to project imperial power to the citizens of Shanghai, the significant Indian presence that existed in the empire and later the republic, has been largely forgotten (Jackson 2012).

This Indian world was not limited to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who participated in imperial conflicts such as the Opium Wars. It included factory guards, merchants, moneylenders, and even the odd revolutionary. They made their homes everywhere from grand cities to obscure treaty ports, building homes, families and temples wherever they went. Those historians who have sought to reconstruct the Indian experience have tended to rely on records written by European observers. Others have turned to travel accounts by elite figures, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Manabendra Nath Roy (Duara 2009). To these slim pickings, we may now add the veritable feast served by Singh. His account offers a snapshot of an ordinary Indian adrift in a world that is at once familiar and yet also alien. As a relatively well educated soldier, Singh was a little more privileged than those typically described as subaltern, at least in the Gramscian sense. Nevertheless, his observations offer a priceless resource for social historians of China and India alike, particularly when contextualised by Yang’s excellent introduction.

The Boxer Rebellion

Possessed with such astonishing powers, the Boxers were the chief cause of the revolt in China. (p 116)

Though he writes at times as if he were a tourist, Singh’s journey to China was certainly no pleasure trip. He was a member of the seventh Rajput Regiment, deployed by the British to suppress the so-called Boxer Rebellion. This conflict had arisen in an increasingly impoverished region of northern China at the end of the 1890s. Over the preceding years, much of Asia had suffered a relentless series of El Niño droughts. In Singh’s homeland, this climatic anomaly had combined with imperial mismanagement to push millions of Indian peasants into starvation (Davis 2001). Meanwhile, in northern China the prolonged drought had followed hard on the heels of the catastrophic flooding in the Yellow river. A decade of misfortunes created an apocalyptic atmosphere, in which bands of desperately hungry young men were drawn to a religious sect describing itself as the Righteous Harmonious Fists. Its adherents believed they could re-establish harmony with heaven by driving malign foreign influences such as Christianity out of the Qing Empire (Cohen 1997). English speakers who witnessed their elaborate martial arts displays took to calling them the Boxers.

Long after this movement was suppressed, the term “Boxer” lived on as a shorthand for the irrationality and xenophobia that foreign observers assumed was dormant in the minds of the Chinese masses. Boxerism was seen as the antithesis of the enlightened values that supposedly informed the imperial project. Those peddling this narrative overlooked the fact that the Boxers only killed a couple of hundred missionaries, while foreign troops butchered tens of thousands of Chinese civilians in retaliation. By the end of the 20th century, the term Boxer had fallen out of common parlance, as the historical memory of the conflict had faded in English-speaking countries. Not so in China, where state-led patriotic education has helped to etch these events deep into popular consciousness. Every schoolchild learns how the Eight Nation Alliance of Europeans, Americans and Japanese, ganged up to humiliate the Qing Empire (Wang 2012). In the Maoist years, the Boxers were cast as proto-peasant revolutionaries, while more recently they have been reborn as nationalist martyrs. Such narratives neglect to mention the tens of thousands of Chinese villagers who the Boxers massacred. They are also silent about some of the more outlandish claims sect members made, most infamously the all too easily disproven belief that they were impervious to bullets.

With the historical memory of the Boxer Rebellion remaining highly contested, readers could be forgiven for hoping that Gadadhar Singh might offer a more neutral perspective. Unless they read very attentively, they may be disappointed. For much of Singh’s account simply regurgitates an imperialist perspective, which blamed the Chinese for conflicts such as the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Though Singh did not provide footnotes, Yang and his collaborators have reconstructed his bibliography, and so we know that he leant heavily upon jingoistic war narratives written by British authors. Singh leaves many of their most egregious Orientalist stereotypes unchallenged. He describes how the Chinese had “been thirsting for foreign blood” (p 80) for thousands of years, and laments how a cabal of “selfish ministers” (p 152) had stymied all attempts at reforming the desperately outmoded Qing court. At the same time, he is effusive in his praise of the compassionate “European race,” whose benevolent governments sent armies to rescue their besieged nationals.

Internal Contradictions

How much more paper should I blacken with these descriptions? (p 298)

Given that Singh parrots the British discourse on many key aspects of the conflict, readers might be surprised to find that Yang characterises Thirteen Months as a “deposition on behalf of China” (p 15). He goes further, suggesting that had it been written in English rather than Hindi, Singh’s text would have amounted to career suicide. The reason for this is that amidst his grandiloquent descriptions of military heroics, Singh divulges details of the brutality that foreign soldiers inflicted upon the Chinese. As he was clearly outraged by what he saw, it might be tempting to suggest that all of his imperial bluster was simply a veneer, constructed so that he might smuggle seditious views into print. Such a manoeuvre would be quite out of character for Singh, who continually avows his loyalty to the British throughout the text, and later in his career even travelled to London for a royal coronation. A more convincing explanation is that the conflicted nature of this text reflected its author’s own internal contradictions. Indeed, it is this absence of internal coherence that makes Thirteen Months such a compelling historical document, as it offers a snapshot of a man torn apart by conflicted loyalties. The overall impression is of a text written by a committee of antagonistic voices, issuing forth from Singh and desperately vying for the reader’s attention.

Yang suggests that it may have been guilt that compelled Singh to expose the horrors of war. Trauma might be another explanation. This would help to explain why violence seems to irrupt into the narrative at unexpected junctures. At one point, Singh is offering a fairly innocuous description of the queue, the braided hairstyle worn by Chinese men, when all of a sudden he is recalling seeing thousands of men “tied to each other by their queues and dragged here and there, and finally lined-up tied together and made targets for bullets” (p 225). Without missing a beat, he continues with a tedious discussion of palace architecture. In the penultimate section of his book, entitled “Loot and Atrocities,” Singh launches a sustained tirade against the brutality he witnessed, which included children being burned alive, women being raped and murdered, and prisoners being nailed to doors. He is somewhat circumspect in criticising the British, perhaps with one eye on the censor, and claims that the Russians and Japanese were the worst offenders. Yet nobody escapes without blame, including the “decent Hindus” who, he claims, were also involved in “bestial atrocities and carnage” (p 296).

Alas, the condition of our Hindustan is no better than this. (p 274)

Further evidence of Singh’s internal contradictions is revealed by his ability to code-switch between passages in which he indicts foreign brutality and passages where he offers a paean to the glory of war. Much of his text is inflected, as Yang notes, with a form of hypermasculinity that was integral to his Rajput identity. “All knowledge is incomplete,” he claims at one point, “without (the) knowledge of war” (p 44). Singh was an adherent of the Arya Samaj movement, and so looked to the Vedas to affirm his militarism, noting that the gods therein “proclaim that the race/caste that defeats the enemy … can enjoy peace and comfort in the world” (p 45). Bloodthirsty prose such as this is peppered throughout Thirteen Months, revealing the militaristic beliefs of a soldier who believed that success in warfare was an index to measure the civilizational standard of a “race.” It was this somewhat social Darwinian perspective that helped to inspire Singh’s ardent admiration of the Japanese. He was impressed not only by the Japanese soldiers that he had witnessed fighting valiantly in China, but also, more broadly, by Japan’s capacity to remould itself as a modern nation state.

In stark contrast, Singh believed that China exemplified a failure to progress and foster an appropriate martial attitude. Throughout Thirteen Months, he uses the contrast between these two nations as a motif to explore the problems that beset his beloved Hindustanis. While Japan served as an aspirational ideal, China was a cautionary tale. In criticising diverse features of Chinese society, from the lack of female education to the absence of cultural coherence, Singh was actually criticising his own people, who he believed shared many of the same failings. His writing was informed by a sense of empathy born out of shared tribulations, which contrasted starkly with the condescending sympathy that framed most English-language accounts of Chinese life. Another distinction was that, rather than seeking to exoticise China, Singh hunted for commonalities, finding them in spheres such as religion, customs, and family life. He saw the two civilisations as members of a kindred “black race,” and at one point even discusses creating a “great Asian power” of India–China (Hind–Cheen). To achieve this end, Singh was even willing to overlook the fact that the Chinese people ate frogs, a subject which seems to have both fascinated and appalled contemporary Indian readers.


By using the problems of a foreign nation as a prism for self-reflection, Singh managed to write a book about China that was really about India. Some of the most fascinating sections were those that cast Indian soldiers as fish out of water. Their greatest challenge in a cosmopolitan army lay not on the battlefield but in the kitchen, where they struggled to maintain their customary dietary prohibitions. Singh recalls how a group of his compatriots were forced to throw away all of their roti because a Japanese soldier had touched their oven, whilst elsewhere an injured soldier could not bring himself to drink from a glass proffered by a “white goddess” nurse. Such sketches offer intimate portraits of the interior worlds of ordinary Indian soldiers struggling to accommodate the considerations of religion and caste in an alien terrain.

Yet such scenes are still mediated by Singh in his role as a didactic narrator, who cannot help but seize the opportunity to rail against such prohibitions. There are but a few unguarded moments where we can catch a glimpse of Singh not as a reformer or warrior but as an ordinary man. On his journey to war, he is plagued by diarrhoea and seasickness, and when he finally engages in combat, his greatest challenge seems to have been the punishing heat of the Chinese summer rather than enemy bullets. For me, it was these moments of vomit and sweat that helped to bring Singh to life, making his unique snapshot of a conflicted subaltern negotiating the colonial world an even more rewarding read.

Chris Courtney ( teaches Modern Chinese History at the Durham University, United Kingdom.


Cohen, Paul A (1997): History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, New York: Columbia University Press.

Davis, Mike (2001): Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, London: Verso.

Duara, Prasenjit (2009): The Global and Regional in China’s Nation-Formation, London: Routledge.

Jackson, Isabella (2012): “The Raj on Nanjing Road: Sikh Policemen in Treaty-Port Shanghai,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 46, No 6, pp 1672–704.

Wang, Zheng (2012): Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, New York: Columbia University Press.

Updated On : 7th Sep, 2018


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